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Omid Djalili on the protest that changed the world

BY Farhana Gani

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Omid Djalili on the protest that changed the world

The documentary We Are Many tells the story of the largest protest in history. On 15 February 2003, the Stop the War campaign saw 30 million people in opposition to the looming Iraq War. Executive Producer Omid Djalili talks about the impact of that day.

We Are Many, directed by Amir Amirani, relives a momentous day in our recent history. The marches against the Iraq War would change attitudes to politics and politicians the world over.

The film uses archive clips of the marches in London, Paris, Sydney, New York and elsewhere—including a remote research station in Antarctica—and features interviews with activists and sympathisers including the late Tony Benn, Clare Short, Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, John Le Carré, Mark Rylance and Ken Loach.

Click to enlarge. From top left: large demonstrations in Madrid, New York, Jakarta, Calcutta, Rome, (2nd row) London, Berlin, Marseille, San Francisco, and Montevideo


FG: The marchers were young and old and from all over the world…

Omid: They weren’t just lefties and students. It was everyone. It was the first issue that affected the whole of our society on a global scale. It was humanity’s response to what was happening.

Two things were happening that day. One was that we knew a scapegoat was needed after 9/11, but that there was a huge difference between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, there was no connection between the two. And we knew that people were going to get hurt, that Iraqis were going to get killed.

I think that is why people stood up. Middle England, Scotland, Wales, everybody said we don’t want people to die because the body of humanity is one.

Now terrorism is on the up, we are soft targets, our whole way of life is threatened, and it was all because of that war, and the protestors knew it.


The lead up to the march:


How did you get involved in the project?

In 2011, I became active on Twitter and I saw Stephen Fry posted a teaser trailer, and he said “Oh, can’t wait for this.”

It was a Kickstarter thing and I recognised Amir Amirani’s name—Amir was at school with me—so I called him up, and to cut a long story short, he roped me in.

I was the first person to come on board, and together we tried to get more support for the film financially and editorially.


Hans Blix, Ken Loach, John Le Carré , Tony Benn… you invited some very high-profile people to participate. Who refused you?

Members of the cabinet at the time. We just didn’t get responses. John Prescott was one of those who didn’t respond initially, but later he gave video testimonies on why he thought the film was important for everyone to see.

He essentially says the people were right, and the cabinet were wrong. That’s a huge statement from the Deputy Prime Minister of the time.


"[Richard] Branson's efforts could
  have stopped the war!" 


John Le Carré describes the marchers as “a sea of humanity”

He also said the war in Iraq was the crime of the century. After he watched the film he sent us a note, which we framed, saying, “I’ve now seen it, and like all the other contributors I am tremendously proud to be a contributor in this film.”


Then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, on the illegality of the war:


I was surprised by Richard Branson’s involvement…

We were very lucky to have unearthed stories like Richard Branson’s top-secret attempt to stop the whole invasion by getting Mandela and Kofi Annan to meet with Saddam to persuade him to step down.

We don’t know if the Americans found out about this but they pushed the war forward by a couple of days. Branson’s efforts could have stopped the war.


So what’s the purpose of this film?

You never have a reason to make a film, other than just telling a great story. And this is a fantastic story. It’s a story that we didn’t even know was going on until it was over. None of us were aware that 800 cities took part.

What it shows is that a lot of people who went on that march felt very disappointed, and felt that they were not being listened to. I believe that the people who went on that march now feel validated, that they did make a change.

We didn’t see it straight away, but [it influenced] things like the Arab Spring happened, the decision not to go to war in Syria. And there is now social media. It’s no coincidence that things like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook started pretty soon after 2003.


Channel 4's Jon Snow said: 
“Don’t bother reading Chilcot, just watch 
We Are Many. The film is far more relevant."


Former President George Bush makes light of the war. Warning, contains graphic imagery:


What is the most memorable moment for you in the film?

Will Saunders, who had just written the words ‘No War’ in bright red paint on the Sydney Opera House, was arrested and fined $150,000 for malicious damage. He said, “If war isn’t the ultimate ‘malicious damage’, I don’t know what is.”

I think we have to be very mindful that we have much more power. The reason I didn’t protest that day is that I fundamentally felt that I’m a pawn in someone else’s game and I have no power. But since that event, I don’t feel that. And becoming involved in this film was a way of reminding myself of my own power, that everything I say and do, words and ideas have an impact, and I think that’s the message to the younger generation: be empowered.

If you have a good idea, say it. If you want to do something great, do it. I think that’s what life is about: to participate in and contribute to an ever-advancing civilisation.


When I watched the film, my instant feeling was that everyone has to see this.

Channel 4’s Jon Snow has been the biggest champion of the film. He said, “Don’t bother reading Chilcot, just watch We Are Many. The film is far more relevant."

Who’s going to want to wade through all the words in the report? Just go and watch an artistic documentary that’ll tell you everything.


Antarctica protes
Peace protests at the research station in Antarctica. Image via Virgin

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